Test Ride – French Alps

Scenic val­leys, soar­ing peaks and leg-bust­ing moun­tain passes in the world’s most cel­e­brated cy­cling haven

Bikes Etc - - CONTENTS -

Bike­setc takes on some mighty alpine passes.

WHERE: FRENCH ALPS TO­TAL DIS­TANCE: 114KM/70 MILES TO­TAL EL­E­VA­TION: 2,800M/9,186FT DIF­FI­CULTY RAT­ING: 9/10

Cy­cling and France are two words that are so in­ter­twined that you could be for­given for think­ing they in­vented it! From the Tour de France to the stereo­typ­i­cal onion seller in his striped jer­sey, it seems the whole coun­try is cy­cling mad. Not sur­pris­ing, since France has so many in­cred­i­ble ar­eas for rid­ing, such as Bri­tanny, the Mas­sif Cen­tral and the Pyre­nees. But stand­ing head and shoulders above the rest, the French Alps is prob­a­bly the most fa­mous and most vis­ited cy­cling lo­ca­tion in the world. With its high-alti­tude passes, stun­ning val­leys and great in­fra­struc­ture – not to men­tion the lo­cals’ great re­spect for rid­ers – what bet­ter place to try out high-end bikes from three of the big­gest names in French bike man­u­fac­ture? We headed to the beau­ti­ful Lake An­necy to hook up with Adrian Hill, founder of Alp Cy­cles (alp­cy­cles.com), a firm with 10 years ex­pe­ri­ence op­er­at­ing train­ing camps and tours, to take on one of the hard­est routes Bike­setc has ever at­tempted. Also join­ing us was lo­cal ex-pat Brit Kai Wheeler. We asked Adrian to show us big climbs, big views and maybe some­thing a bit dif­fer­ent. ‘How about a climb like Alpe d’huez, but dou­ble the hair­pins?’ he sug­gested. You might imag­ine Alpe d’huez has more hair­pins than any other climb, given how fa­mous its 21 bends are, but ap­par­ently not, and Ade had a real hid­den gem of a climb in store for us. Set­ting off from Dous­sard at the south­ern end of Lake An­necy, Adrian led us south on

the An­necy bike path. This is an in­cred­i­ble bit of in­fra­struc­ture of the kind we don’t see in the UK – wide, clean and flat, and in­clu­sive for rid­ers of all abil­i­ties and ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter a quick and easy 16km, we turn left and cross the high­way, to­wards the first climb of the day. The Col de l’ar­pet­taz is a rel­a­tively un­known climb, but those who have rid­den it all sing its praises. When Adrian said it was like Alpe d’huez, what he meant was the stats. Both are 15km long and both have 1,150m of climb­ing, which gives an aver­age of 7.6% gra­di­ent; but L’ar­pet­taz fea­tures 42 hair­pins. It starts eas­ily enough, grad­u­ally climb­ing and me­an­der­ing through a few vil­lages and through the first hair­pins, we tick them off. ‘Two down, 40 to go!’ But it doesn’t take long be­fore we lose count com­pletely, so we’ll have to as­sume the claimed num­ber is cor­rect. The road ducks into cover be­neath the trees for some time, which we wel­come as the tem­per­a­ture starts to rise. The trees of­fer a nat­u­ral shel­ter to fend off the heat but there are still a few open­ings where you get a chance to take in the views. What’s im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, apart from the hair­pins, is how quiet the road is. On a busy week­end in the sum­mer, many alpine climbs would be over-run with cyclists, mo­tor­bikes and cars, but the Col de l’ar­pet­taz feels al­most de­serted, and over the whole climb we en­counter just a hand­ful of cars and only three other cyclists. Bliss! As we ap­proach the top and exit the trees, the views are in­cred­i­ble with a clear sky mak­ing the higher peaks vis­i­ble. With a long day ahead, though, we don’t spend too long at the top and start mak­ing our way down. The des­cent is ev­ery bit as good as the climb – if not bet­ter – with lots of long, sweep­ing bends. As a former moun­tain biker Kai is ob­vi­ously en­joy­ing it, dis­ap­pear­ing out of view and mak­ing quick work of the hair­pins. At the bot­tom we hit a wider, slightly busier road as we head up the Val d’arly to the town of Flumet, and al­though we’ve been grad­u­ally climb­ing again for a few kilo­me­tres al­ready, this marks the of­fi­cial start of our next climb up to the Col des Aravis – a much more fa­mous climb than l’ar­pet­taz, which first ap­peared in the Tour in 1911. Ini­tially, the gra­di­ent is easy, with some short down­hills along the way, so while in to­tal it is 12km in dis­tance, it feels much shorter. The fi­nal 7km are all up­hill, how­ever, and as the road leaves the fi­nal vil­lage of La Gi­et­taz the switch­backs be­gin. When Adrian tells us to stop and look back over our shoulders, we’re treated to per­haps

the most spec­tac­u­lar view on our route, with the over­whelm­ing Mont Blanc loom­ing be­hind us. The sum­mit of the Aravis is quite dif­fer­ent to the Ar­pet­taz, with a few restau­rants mak­ing it a good re­fu­elling point. The des­cent from the top on our route is rel­a­tively short, drop­ping through a few hair­pins into the edge of the ski re­sort of La Clusaz, but we’re climb­ing again very soon, as we start to head up the slopes of the Col de la Croix Fry. Com­pared to the big­ger climbs be­fore it, this seems like just a mole­hill with a ski re­sort at the top. The climb might have been short, but the des­cent is over 10km and is rel­a­tively steep with lots of hair­pins. Kai once again drops like a stone, showing in­cred­i­ble con­fi­dence and abil­ity as we ride to­wards Thônes. From here we head back to­wards the start, mostly on eas­ier lanes that avoid the busier main road. A draggy false flat up the Col de Bluffy is the last hard work needed on the route as we drop in to Tal­lo­ries, which is re­garded by many as the most ex­clu­sive com­mune around Lake An­necy. Adrian points us down the hill into the cen­tre for a stop at Base­camp, a rel­a­tively new café, bike hire and event com­pany in the vil­lage. The cof­fee and cin­na­mon roll are su­perb, and with just a gen­tle roll around the lake to fin­ish the ride, it is a great spot to stop and re­flect on the day we have just shared. The big, fa­mous Cols of the Alps are great, but some­times it is the lit­tle, al­most hid­den climbs that leave more of a mem­ory. The Col de l’ar­pet­taz is one such climb along a lifeaf­firm­ing route that of­fers both big views and heart-pound­ing de­scents. Wow!

It’s a cy­cling won­der­land you can fly to within hours

The Alps have the power to lift you and chal­lenge you like no other moun­tain range

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